Toots Hibbert, Beloved Reggae Star, Dead at 77

September 12, 2020 Updated: September 12, 2020

NEW YORK—Toots Hibbert, one of reggae’s founders and most beloved stars who gave the music its name and later helped make it an international movement through such classics as “Pressure Drop,” “Monkey Man,” and “Funky Kingston,” has died. He was 77.

Hibbert, frontman of Toots & the Maytals, had been in a medically-induced coma at a hospital in Kingston since earlier this month. He was admitted to intensive care after complaints of having breathing difficulties according to his publicist. It was revealed in local media that the singer was awaiting results from a COVID-19 test after showing symptoms.

News of the five-time Grammy nominee’s ill-health came just weeks after his last known performance, on a national live-stream during Jamaica’s Emancipation and Independence celebrations in August.

A family statement said Hibbert died Friday at University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, surrounded by family.

Ziggy Marley, son of Bob Marley, tweeted about the death saying he spoke with Hibbert a few weeks ago and, “told him how much i loved him we laughed & shared our mutual respect,” adding, “He was a father figure to me.”

A muscular ex-boxer, Hibbert was a bandleader, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and showman whose concerts sometimes ended with dozens of audience members dancing with him on stage. He was also, in the opinion of many, reggae’s greatest singer, so deeply spiritual he could transform “Do re mi fa so la ti do” into a hymn. His raspy tenor, uncommonly warm and rough, was likened to the voice of Otis Redding and made him more accessible to American listeners than many reggae artists. Original songs such as “Funky Kingston” and “54-46 That’s My Number” had the emotion and call and response arrangements known to soul and gospel fans. Hibbert even recorded an album of American hits, “Toots In Memphis,” which came out in 1988.

Never as immersed in politics as his friend and great contemporary Bob Marley, Hibbert did invoke heavenly justice in “Pressure Drop,” preach peace in “Revolution,” righteousness in “Bam Bam” and scorn his 1960s drug arrest and imprisonment in “54-46 That’s My Number.” He also captured, like few others, everyday life in Jamaica in the years following its independence from Britain in 1962, whether telling of wedding jitters (“Sweet and Dandy”) or of trying to pay the rent (“Time Tough”). One of his most popular and surprising songs was his reworking of John Denver’s nostalgic “(Take Me Home) Country Roads,” with the setting changed from West Virginia to a world Hibbert knew so well.

Grammy nominations for Hibbert included best reggae album of 2012 for “Reggae Got Soul” and best reggae album of 2007 for “Light Your Light.” Hibbert was ranked No. 71 on a Rolling Stone list, compiled in 2008, of the 100 greatest contemporary singers. In 2012, he received the Order of Distinction by the government of Jamaica for outstanding contribution to the country’s music.

Married to his wife, Doreen, for nearly 40 years, Hibbert had eight children, including the reggae performers Junior Hibbert and Leba Hibbert.

By Hillel Italie